The only thing holding Chelsea back?
Chelsea’s enterprising football this season has gone a good way to disproving the notion that their summer business would not and should not spell them out as Premier League contenders. While I still believe that to be true of any club, the reality is, that Chelsea are making good of their attacking investments this summer, with each of their high-profile acquisitions elevating them back onto the pantheon of genuine title challengers.
Fernando Torres may be the only stumbling block, with even a good return of goals this season not really doing enough to convince that the Torres of old is back. The pace has been lost, the clinical and assured finishing is out the window, but that shouldn’t necessarily equate to a failed project. The £50 million price tag will never be repaid in the manner in which Chelsea thought it would, but the youth of this new project at under Roberto Di Matteo could still suggest that there is room for an evolution of the player into something else; something equally devastating in attack and the perfect spearhead for the attacking midfield trio just behind.
Torres isn’t the main concern. The worry should be the defensive line and specifically the options at centre-back. Gary Cahill, while also shaky at times, is proving that the £7 million fee from Bolton was a good investment. But like a club on the continent with obvious similarities, the captain and heart of the central defence may not always be the option to rely on as the go-to defensive leader. John Terry’s age isn’t the main concern, but rather the injuries that may keep him out of the line up for an extended period of time.
The other option in David Luiz is just not a centre-back, at least not one cut out for the game in England. His game suggests he’d slot in perfectly at Barcelona, but even there his careless play may come back to haunt the Catalans.
It’s not that he’s a bad player, it’s just that he doesn’t appear to have the mentality of a centre-back. It’s the need for drive to get back into position, the awareness to at the very least take a look around before attempting to casually introduce his goalkeeper into a phase of play. Some have suggested that a move to the central defensive midfield role might suit him better. If Barcelona can transform perfectly good holding midfielders into centre-backs then why can’t it be done elsewhere and with the right personnel?
It’s as if someone has told David Luiz to forget his heritage as a Brazilian footballer, throw away all the beach football flicks and tricks, and shackle himself to an invisible chain keeping the back four together as a steady unit. As each game goes on, you continue to see the player screaming inside to get out of that trap.
If Luiz is to continue at centre-back then perhaps a greater level of shielding and security from the midfield is needed. The player managed to mix in well with the stern defensive work last season on the way to the Champions League final, but it’s a different style of play on show at Stamford Bridge this season.
Jon Obi Mikel is not the consistent and engaged defensive force that allows players of Luiz’s mindset to storm ahead and launch attacks from the back. Ramires, equally, cannot to relied on in a such way due to his desire to join the attack. The model that Barcelona and Real Madrid use of ball-playing centre-backs requires and enforces either the double-pivot defensive midfield system or a stay at home player who is very much drilled in the skill of ball retention. Those aside, it does also help when the centre-backs (and specifically the natural defenders) are alert and show a willingness to man their defensive posts with responsibility.
The biggest area to address for Chelsea is not to continue in their pursuit for Radamel Falcao; goals are no great concern for the team and there are a number of players of exceptional quality who can reach double figures for goals in a season. But the real task is to replace John Terry’s presence and leadership in defence.
Barcelona, for a while this season, seemed to adopt the philosophy of score more than the opponents, no matter the final outcome. But Chelsea are not after that. There’s no use in putting some of the finest attackers in the country on show if there is nothing stopping the goals at the other end of the pitch.
The model remains to be that of Barcelona’s most successful period under Pep Guardiola, one which looks to replicate the phenomenal winning partnership of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique at the back.